More than 1,300 in Quarantine as South Korea Battles MERS Virus

At least 2 dead, 30 infected and another 398 "possibly infected," officials say.

ByABC News
June 3, 2015, 3:48 PM

— -- More than 1,300 people are in quarantine in South Korea as the country grapples with an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) virus, and at least two people have died from the disease, authorities said.

A person traveling from the Middle East to South Korea is believed to be patient zero in the country, according to a report from the World Health Organization. When the 68-year-old man arrived at a hospital for treatment, he was not initially put into isolation because the deadly MERS virus was not suspected by medical officials, according to the WHO report.

Director-General of Public Health Policy at South Korea's Ministry of Health and Welfare, Kwon Jun-wook, addressed reporters today and said that at least 30 people had been infected with the virus and another 398 were "possibly infected."

In total, there were at least 1,364 patients in quarantine as health officials work to contain the deadly virus, authorities said. Patient zero is still alive but two others have died from MERS, South Korean health officials said.

Residents in South Korea said they were concerned as news spread of the disease.

MERS "is dangerous. I think if I don't take precautions, I can contract the disease, so I wear this mask for prevention," Kim Sung-taek told the Associated Press Television Network. "In order to take off this mask soon, I think the South Korean government should focus more on this problem [MERS] and act proactively."

Dr. Stephen Morse, an infectious disease expert at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, said the quick spread of the virus will mean that officials will likely investigate if the virus has mutated and become more contagious.

“The other thing is that the extent to which this has spread in Korea with the 30 cases raises questions," Morse told ABC News. "Have the conditions for transmission been more favorable?"

Morse clarified that he believes it’s unlikely that the virus had mutated greatly and said past genotypes of the virus have revealed they remain very similar in both humans and animals.

"One of the problems is that there’s a lot about the epidemiology of MERS that’s poorly understood and not known at all," Morse explained. "Assuming [this outbreak is] like the cases we’ve seen so far I wouldn’t expect most of the people under quarantine are likely to be infected or show signs of disease."

Symptoms of the virus include fever, cough, diarrhea and shortness of breath and the disease has an incubation period between 2 to 14 days. The virus is spread through close contact with an infected person or animal. In Saudi Arabia, where virus was first identified in 2012, contact with infected camels has been linked as a likely cause for infection in humans.